CASTING THE LIGHT ON LIT MOON

When we meet in the Montecito Journal parking lot, I can’t help but notice that John Blondell’s red Saab looks around the same age as mine – built in the 1980s, that is.

“It’s got a quarter of a million miles on it,” Blondell, Westmont College’s theater director, says proudly of the car that well suits a professor, especially one with a graying beard and a thoughtful approach.

The seven theater companies participating in the inaugural Lit Moon World Shakespeare Festival aren’t traveling quite that far to reach Santa Barbara, although virtually all of the 50 or so performers from Eastern Europe have never set foot in the United States before. But, in many ways, they’ve come even further, because the journey can’t be measured just in physical distance. As in keeping with nearly all of Blondell’s work, the Shakespeare festival – the first ever international festival dedicated to the cherished author held on American soil – mixes things up considerably, turning the Bard’s classic plays into a jumping-off point for virtually rule-free theatrical exploration and along the way becoming a meeting of cultures.

Which means the audiences at the event that runs for 11 days beginning October 12 will be meeting them at least halfway. You’ll see “Romeo and Juliet” metamorphose twice, once each by six men in a highly physical approach from the Bulgarian National Theatre, and then in Quebec’s Canis Tempus treatment that find two actors donning myriad masks to explode preconceptions about the tragedy. Poland’s Teatr Modjeska offers a new interpretation of “Othello” performed entirely in Polish (although they’ll provide an extensive libretto in English). And there’s even a world premiere of State Puppet Theatre (of Bulgaria) and its new marionette manipulation of “As You Like It.” Meanwhile, the Lit Moon company offers three productions of its own, and UCSB’s Theatre Artist Group premieres its version of the rarely performed “Timon of Athens.”

The festival is one of the largest theatrical undertakings in the city’s history, with a budget exceeding $150,000 and logistical considerations of staging nine plays for a total of 27 performances from seven companies at five venues, plus lectures, exhibits, cabarets, parties and other special events, not to mention housing all the visiting artists. We managed to grab an hour with Blondell barely a week out from the festival’s launch.

Q. Why is there such a strong Eastern European focus to the festival?

A. It’s more accidental than by design. It was more who I happened upon and who I liked. It started about ten years ago, the first time I went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was totally unusual and new for me, and I saw things from Ukraine, Russia, Hungary and Poland that totally turned me on. I started bringing them one at a time for our original Lit Moon Festival, and then I realized what I had there. Then when we got an invitation to take “Hamlet” to the Shakespeare Festival in Poland, that became the real genesis for this project. I found a whole different set of theaters I could draw from, the majority of which were from Central and Eastern Europe. The theater that comes out of that region is very interesting physically and visually, and that’s always appealed to my sensibilities, what I try to do too.

The other thing that’s interesting is that Eastern Europeans are really embracing Shakespeare. They don’t buy that it’s purely an Anglo-American thing. They are claiming him as somebody who talks about their own concerns. So if it’s not universal, it relates specifically to European life at this time of the early century.

Let’s back up even further, then. Why a Shakespeare festival? I know you’ve done several plays previously, but what’s the appeal for you beyond the obvious?

Well, the richness of language is unparalleled, of course. To live in the world where actors speak these words every day is a great part of my life now. But also there is such room in Shakespeare for a director to come and mix things up, which is my zeitgeist. I love the puzzle of taking a play and finding a way to make it come alive in a different way, an impact for the audience that they wouldn’t get by reading it or seeing a straight performance. All of these companies are doing that.

What makes you think that Santa Barbara is the right place for this festival? Wouldn’t a larger city be more receptive?

The larger theater towns like New York and Chicago already have tremendous presence of international theater, but it’s more multidisciplinary. But if you look in Europe, these sorts of festivals aren’t in the big cities. They’re more in places like Bath and Gdansk. Frankly, I think it’s because the people putting it together realize it could be good for the city. Santa Barbara audiences are cosmopolitan, they’re interesting in different traditions and possibilities. They travel, so they’ve been exposed to different cultures. I think they’ll respond quite well to this.

How did you choose the companies for the festival? Did you see them all?

I’ve seen most of them. Some I just wanted by reputation, others are people I just trust. But there’s a spiritual connection, too. These people in the other parts of the world have been tremendously supportive for us, they’ve opened up a new avenue for us. They’ve helped me grow and showed me friendship. So I wanted to pay them back. Bringing them here is a gift for both them and Santa Barbara, and let’s see what happens.

What would you recommend for someone with a limited budget or time?

I would hope you would see two shows from abroad, because you can’t see them anywhere else, and they are remarkably different. And then see either “Timon of Athens” out at UCSB or one of our Lit Moon three plays. The puppet piece will be very unusual. The Bulgarian “Romeo and Juliet” is truly unusual, because of the physical, almost choreographic way it’s staged.

What is the purpose of the peripheral events?

It’s creating a larger context in which to understand the plays. There are a number of panels where we talk about the plays, the performances, and you get a sense of the inside of the artistic process to better understand the way the plays are presented. The keynote address will examine the phenomenon of globalization of Shakespeare, and there’s a panel at UCSB on that subject too. The night of performance art is all related to Shakespeare characters, including a single actress basing a piece on Lady Macbeth. There’s a dance piece choreographed based on Ophelia. Jim Connolly and the Gove County Quartet will play a piece he wrote in Poland at the festival in Gdansk. And don’t miss the scenic graphic exhibit of the designers, each of whom brought four to six representative pieces of their work. Then there’s some parties, which represent the social aspect of the art form, and are just plain fun.

Most of these works, certainly the ones from your company, demand a lot from the audience. You can’t just be passive, can you?

Yes, absolutely, we want the audience to be there creating the meanings for themselves, drawing from the whole sensory experience. It’s not just a mindless experience, just sit back and be entertained. There’s depth, complexity and it asks something from the audience. But when you want to go along for that ride, you get something that enriches you beyond what you might have imagined. If it doesn’t work for you, that’s fine too. I’m OK if people hate my work. They can argue with my choices all they want. I just don’t want them to be bored.

FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS

Of the 27 performances in the Lit Moon World Shakespeare Festival, nine take place at the Center Stage Theater and four at Porter Theatre on the Westmont College campus, with others dispersed throughout town. These are in addition to multiple discussions and social affairs designed to augment the theatrical experience and instill Shakespeare’s audiences with a clearer perspective of his work. For complete details, ticket information, prices and more, see www.litmoon.com or call 565-6778.

Thursday, October 12

The Lit Moon Theater Company inaugurates the festivities with its award-winning production of “Hamlet,” collaborating with Czech designer Milon Kalis to bring four actors, a live musician and a sprawling sheet of paper as the dominant piece of stage design. “Hamlet” plays at 7 pm at Westmont’s Porter Theatre. The performance is followed immediately at 9 pm by “That (Famous Scottish) Play,” in which Czech dancer and choreographer Antonie Svoboda and scenographer Kalis reenact Shakespeare’s tragedy that, like “Hamlet,” replays on October 14.

Guests of the introductory performances are invited to a premiere party whose location has been kept secret. You’ll have to attend the show if you want to know where it is.

Sunday, October 15

While other venues present the Bard’s bread and butter, UCSB is revealing Shakespeare’s forgotten fare, “Timon of Athens.” Director Risa Brainin and lead actor Irwin Appel make good use of this work and update it for a modern audience. “Timon of Athens” plays at 2 pm on October 15 and again on October 21 at 8 pm and October 22 at 2 pm at UCSB’s Hatlen Theatre.

Thursday, October 19

“Romeo and Juliet” is arguably Shakespeare’s best known material, but the Bulgarian National Theatre has arranged a way for audiences to see it, and better yet, hear it like they never have before. All lines are recited in Bulgarian with English supertitles, a shift in language that demands audiences to focus more on the visual components of the show rather than the auditory portions that have historically received most critical attention. The makers of the production swear their version preserves the play’s emotional appeal.

Saturday, October 21

With multiple companies from multiple countries participating in these affairs, it would come as no secret that Shakespeare’s work, despite its English origins, has gained global appeal. In a keynote address, professor Dennis Kennedy, Samuel Beckett chair of theater at Trinity College, offers a perceptive analysis on how Shakespeare’s travails have transcended their English borders and have been embraced throughout the flat world. Thomas Friedman would be proud.

This free discussion begins at 10 am at Westmont’s Porter Theatre.